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Shooting from the Lip: The Life of Senator Al Simpson

Shooting from the Lip: The Life of Senator Al Simpson

5.0 3
by Donald Loren Hardy

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Shortly before Wyoming’s Alan K. Simpson was elected majority whip of the United States Senate, he decided to keep a journal. “I am going to make notes when I get home in the evening, as to what happened during each day.” Now the senator’s longtime chief of staff, Donald Loren Hardy, has drawn extensively on Simpson’s personal papers


Shortly before Wyoming’s Alan K. Simpson was elected majority whip of the United States Senate, he decided to keep a journal. “I am going to make notes when I get home in the evening, as to what happened during each day.” Now the senator’s longtime chief of staff, Donald Loren Hardy, has drawn extensively on Simpson’s personal papers and nineteen-volume diary to write this unvarnished account of a storied life and political career.

Simpson gave full authorial control to Hardy, telling him, “Don, just tell the truth, the whole truth, as you always have. Leave teeth, hair, and eyeballs on the floor, if that results from telling the truth.” Taking Simpson at his word, Hardy shows readers a thrill-seeking teenager in Cody and a tireless politician who has thoroughly enjoyed his work. Full of entertaining tales and moments of historical significance, Shooting from the Lip offers a privileged and revealing backstage view of late-twentieth century American politics.

Hardy’s richly anecdotal account reveals the roles Simpson played during such critical events as the Iran-Contra scandal and Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. It divulges the senator’s candid views of seven American presidents and scores of other national and world luminaries. Simpson is a politician unfettered by partisanship. Among President George H. W. Bush’s closest compatriots, he was also a close friend and admirer of Senator Ted Kennedy and was never afraid to publicly challenge the positions or tactics of fellow lawmakers, Democratic and Republican alike.

Simpson’s ability to use truth and humor as both “sword and shield,” combined with his years of experience and issue mastery, has led to an impressive post-Senate career. In 2010, for example, he co-chaired President Barack Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Shooting from the Lip portrays a statesman punching sacred cows, challenging the media, and grappling with some of the nation’s most difficult challenges.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Al Simpson’s been likened to a bull in a china shop. That’s not fair. Al’s much louder. And unlike that bull, Al’s cleaning up after other people’s messes! I call him a very fair and balanced critic: he bashes everyone and coddles no one. No wonder both sides love to rip him. He gets under their skin, and reading Shooting from the Lip, you quickly discover that not only has Al built a remarkable career on this ability but our nation is sure as hell the better for it!”—Neil Cavuto, News Anchor and Managing Editor, Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network

"Al Simpson was a Senator with the right touch. Because of his integrity and his humor, he had many friends in the United States Senate—deservedly so."—George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States

“Al Simpson is an American original. Among the many important events recounted in Donald Loren Hardy’s lively biography are gems from Simpson’s close friendship with Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, which reveal as much about Al as they do about the presidents—that he is altogether without pretension, honest, never boring, and always good-hearted.”—David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of John Adams

“Don Hardy has captured every mood, idiosyncrasy, beauty spot, and wart of this great American. The wonderful friendship between Al Simpson and me and our strong respect and love for each other are not based on our thinking alike on every political issue, but on our respect for the public policy–setting process, our advocacy for preserving the liberties and freedoms for which others have given their lives, and our belief in the opportunities this great country offers. This book is about a warm, wonderful person who has devoted his life to straight talk, unabashed patriotism, and a willingness to work “across the aisle” to make this a more perfect Union.”—Norman Y. Mineta, former United States Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Commerce

“This lively biography of Al Simpson brilliantly captures a man as wide open and free-spirited as the West itself. Shooting from the Lip is refreshingly funny and irreverent—and never more timely than now, when the nation is once again turning to Simpson for straight talk about government spending.”—Andrea Mitchell Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, NBC News

Shooting from the Lip: The Life of Senator Al Simpson is a biography that draws directly from the extensive, nineteen-volume journal that Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming elected to keep shortly before he was elected to the post of majority whip. Colorful anecdotes and testimony of those who knew the senator best supports this excellent reconstruction of a strong-willed leader. Al Simpson himself gave Donald Loren Hardy full editorial control and a mandate to tell the complete, unvarnished truth. Shooting from the Lip especially scrutinizes Simpson's role in critical events such as the Iran-Contra scandal. Al Simpson's charisma, expertise, and talent for using humor as well as reason to drive home a point distinguish his political career. Shooting from the Lip is an excellent and engaging true story and a welcome addition to college and public library political biography shelves.—Midwest Book Review

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Shooting from the Lip

The Life of Senator Al Simpson

By Donald Loren Hardy


Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8280-3


Pioneer Spirits

* * *

At my request, eighteen members of the Cody High School class of 1949 gathered one frozen Wyoming morning in early 2006 to tell me about their famous classmate, Al Simpson. The retired U.S. senator spoke first.

Don, you are about to hear some things about me that I am not proud of in any respect. I am not trying to hide them because, sadly, they did happen. No book of my life would be complete without them. However, I would pray it might be clearly understood that I was not in any way in these latter years "bragging" or "cocky" about being reckless, dumb, rebellious and irresponsible as a kid. Many of the things I did were just plain damn stupid.

Looking back, I am very sorry my friends and I did them. But we did. We were teenagers, goofy kids seeking thrills in a destructive way that can't be explained by any of us—even to the present day. We were very fortunate to have lived in a loving and forgiving community and been able to go on with our lives—after serving our probation and making restitution—without being marked for life, as many might be in today's world.

The room grew quiet. Al's stories were always the best—especially those involving gunfire and explosions. "My dad won a car, a Nash, at an Episcopal Church raffle. We got to driving around in that thing. We were all excellent shots, crack shots, so we often drove around shooting at things. It always seemed like a good idea at the time." After school one day in 1948, Al and a few friends motored the Nash along a small road near Cody. Armed with .22-caliber rifles, they shot enthusiastically at every inviting target, meaning everything within range. They found one roadside mailbox of particular interest. Seventy-two bullets left it in shards.

"The bullets were going through the mailbox and landing near old man Basinger's porch, which was a half mile or a mile away. Oh yeah, we got out of the car and shot the hell out of it—left pieces of lead all over the place." Reports of shots being fired, and the death of a cow, soon led to the boys' capture. Seventeen-year old Alan Simpson and several cohorts were charged with the federal offense of destroying mailboxes, and more. "We shot the tires on a road grader, because they were filled with water and when we shot them, the water just squirted out. That was really exciting!"

A classmate went on to describe the day they blew up a house. Simpson listened quietly, then offered a correction: "It was not a house. It was just an old shack, a health hazard, to our way of thinking. People had been in there drinking and all manner of things." His tone suggested that dealing unmercifully with the building would be an appreciated service to the public. Another friend picked up the story, which involved a World War II internment camp hastily constructed near Heart Mountain, northeast of Cody: "The house came from the old Japanese camp. It was one of those old tarpaper shacks that someone had moved after the war. We filled a coke bottle with gas and stuffed a rag in it. We lit it and threw it through a window."

Again, Al objected. Nobody had thrown anything through a window, since the glass was already missing—although he did concede that a homemade fuse may have ignited gasoline that somehow came to be inside the house, and that soon the entire structure was missing.

This reminded him of the day he and his pals passed sentence on an old car owned by a family friend. The auto's "crime," punishable by immolation, was having allowed itself to be long abandoned on Simpson family property by an owner unaware of the lads' eagerness to address such effrontery: "That car sat there behind our house for three or four years. It belonged to a friend of my parents, and it just sat there. But I was not the one who suggested that we take it across the bridge and set it on fire—and then push it down that steep hill toward the river below." The hill in question was just north of town, above the Shoshone River canyon. Any car doused with gasoline, ignited, and pushed over the edge would be certain to tumble wildly hundreds of feet into the ravine, a vision the boys gleefully anticipated.

"The engine didn't run, so we hooked the car up to this other vehicle, intending to pull it to its 'accident' site. While we were pulling it down the main street, a cop came along and asked if he could help. We said, 'No, we think we've got it.' He wished us good luck and we went across the river and perched the car atop a rugged, rocky, sagebrush-strewn hill," Al recounted. In preparation for the event, the boys siphoned five gallons of gasoline from a tank in the back of a stranger's pickup. Even though several of the lads, including Simpson, later became Cody volunteer firefighters, on that day they enthusiastically sloshed the purloined gasoline into the doomed vehicle and struck a match. In an instant, the car was violently ablaze.

Simpson interrupted the story to emphasize his devotion to project safety. "While some of the others went below to watch from there, I stayed on top to flag passing cars and warn of any danger," he explained.

Pushing the blazing vehicle over the edge of the cliff proved more difficult than anticipated, since the doomed machine was now blistering hot. Fearing that its gas tank might explode, one of the boys scrambled wildly over the cliff's edge and began pulling on the front bumper. As others shoved on the rear, the doomed vehicle grudgingly lurched forward. It pitched and then tumbled down the steep hill at alarming speed, spewing flaming gasoline in all directions. Having cheered its thrilling descent, Simpson demonstrated the seriousness with which he took his safety responsibilities by dashing back to the highway.

I knew the first guy who came along [in his car]. He was very excitable. I ran up and said, "Fred! A car just went off the cliff. I'm afraid to look."

He said, "You crazy bastards! I knew you kids would kill yourselves! I'll go to the hospital and let them know, and I'll be back in a minute."

He was just absolutely beside himself, shrieking, cursing and carrying on. Off he went, but by the time he got back, nobody was there. The car was still there, of course, at the bottom of the cliff, in flames.

As months of their childhood passed, the rowdy boys began to mature and even to make amends. They had fired thousands of rounds of .22-caliber bullets in their early days, ammo they could afford because they had stolen it from a store in Cody. "I think we got up about thirty dollars, a bunch of us. We clipped letters of the alphabet out of the newspaper and made a note saying, 'We stole shells from your place over the years. We feel badly about it.' We took the letter to Powell [twenty-four miles away] and mailed it from there, so it wouldn't have a Cody postmark. We signed it, 'Guilty Boys.'" Store owner Stan Lundgren operated his business for several more decades, never learning the thieves' identities.

Al's menace with a rifle and keen marksmanship were established facts. He remains proud of his ability to throw objects into the air and shoot them from the sky. "As a kid, I read about Annie Oakley. I thought that if she could shoot like that, surely I could do it. Actually, all you do is wait until it stops. You just throw something up into the air. When it stops going up, you shoot." Marksmanship was one thing, but brinksmanship elevated the boys' interest in guns to an art form. "We shot at each other. We got behind rocks down on Sulfur Creek and we'd see how close we could get to each other with .22-caliber 'shorts.' We never actually shot each other, but when the ricochet came close we would say, 'Boy, that was a good shot. That was pretty close—and it didn't even hurt.'" Al once shot so close to a friend's foot that the bullet pierced the side of his shoe. Since no blood was drawn, the boys interpreted the achievement as irrefutable evidence of amazing and daring marksmanship.


As a youngster, Al observed how well humor worked for his father. As the guest of honor at a Cody High School prom, Milward addressed the students solely in "Chinese." Al's classmate Jim Nielson laughed while telling the story: "I remember the class of '49 junior-senior prom, and Al's father getting up and speaking Chinese to us. We were impressed, since the theme of the prom was 'In a Chinese Garden.' We couldn't wait to report to everyone how great his father was." Milward's "Chinese" had been complete gibberish. He knew the sound of Chinese but had no idea how to speak actual words. Six decades later, Al commented on that evening.

I was kind of embarrassed—you know, to have Dad and Mom there. But Pop got up and said, "All this takes me back to when Lorna and I lived so many years in China. We love China." He named some cities, having read the book The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck. He had also been a friend of Nelson T. Johnson, who was ambassador to China prior to WWII.

Dad said, "I think on a night like this we should think how the Chinese would say aah ... [extensive expressions in tonal faux Chinese]." I just stared. My date, Jim Nielson's sister Joanne, said, "Wow! I didn't know your father spoke Chinese!" I said, "Neither did I!"

Al continued to observe his father's use of humor and was soon emulating it as a way of making an impression or dealing with conflict.

Although Milward and Lorna cherished their sons' many accomplishments later in life, their early years were challenging. In 2006 Al reflected on the anguish he caused:

When a cop car would drive up in front of the house, my mother would just go into shock. I know it's terrible, but in those days I considered it a success if I could make my mother cry.

I had a vicious temper. I would just sit in my room, after getting into trouble. She would shut the door and lock it. I would be pounding on it and shouting, "I'm going to kill you!" It is not a very nice thing to tell your mother. She would say, "I'm lying here on the bed. I'm sick, I'm heartsick." I thought, Well, okay!

Mrs. Simpson once told Time magazine about her son's legendary temper and her deep frustrations with him as a child. A woman of soft voice and firm resolve, she was determined to keep him from perfecting his budding delinquency. Al came to know her as "the velvet hammer—soft as velvet, strong as steel."

During the classmates' storytelling session, Al's earliest friend, Bob Borron, piped up about a time when the Simpson brothers, then young boys of six or seven, "entrapped" him.

Dad was hired to tear down an old building on the Simpson property. When Pete and Al came over, Dad said to me, "Why don't you play with those little Simpson boys?" So I went over to the garage and pretty soon they were handing me rocks. They encouraged me, so I started throwing rocks at the garage windows.

I was having a nice time knocking holes in the garage when a lady came along and said, "Little boy, why are you tearing up our garage?" Al said to her, "Mother, I was trying to get him to quit!"

I was still sore at him about the garage deal when [in school, several years later] I saw Al creasing the pages in his textbook. I said to the teacher, "Look at that, look what our class president is doing. What if every little kid destroyed our books like that?"

She asked, "What do you think we should we do about that?" I said, "Well, we've been studying impeachment. Let's impeach him!" So that's what we did.

Once again, Simpson leaped to his own defense. "All I was doing was folding the pages like butterflies. I was not crimping them! They looked kind of like a fan. I wasn't breaking the backing or tearing the pages." The group laughed heartily. They loved their "Alibi Al."

On July 3, 2006, four and a half months after Bob Hoagland Borron joyfully shared his story, Al Simpson fought back tears while delivering Borron's eulogy: "I cherish the near lifetime of years that I was a beneficiary of this wonderfully kind man's love and good fellowship. He drew people like a magnet—because he was pure fun. And who in the daily course of life doesn't love to be around someone who is just plain fun? We had many leaders in our class. Bob was the leader of mirth and laughter."

While Al and his brother were growing up, it was generally conceded that Pete's antics were less bizarre than those conjured up by his irrepressible younger brother. "I joined Al on several occasions, but I was always the 'getaway car,' not the perpetrator," Pete explained. "I used to try to discourage him from those things, and I used to make excuses for him with our parents." A family friend had a simple and astute way of defining the difference between the Simpson boys: "Pete would always let a sleeping dog lie. Al would go over and jerk its tail."

Pete was considered the more responsible son in part because many people never learned of his having served federal "probation" long before Al was arrested. Sitting comfortably in the house where the two grew up, Pete described the events of decades earlier. "I had thrown a cherry bomb into a mailbox in front of the post office in Jackson [Wyoming]. It blew up all these letters. I escaped the scene, but it was too small a town and they knew who did it. I was put on probation, but never had to contact a probation officer. At the time, I thought I was going to the penitentiary." To make a lasting impression, Milward had rigged a courtroom charade, using real judges, officers, and lawyer friends.

"They had this formal hearing. I thought, 'Christ, I'm going to Worland!'" Worland was the site of the state reformatory for boys. "Dad was in the back of the courtroom, not saying a word. I kept looking around, hoping he would come to my aid." After "testimony" was presented, the judge "sentenced" Pete and an accomplice to federal probation. Years passed before he realized that the hearing had been a mock sentencing. One might assume Pete's traumatic ordeal had an impact on his brother. It did not. Like some of his highly spirited ancestors, Al remained steadfast in his determination to learn life's lessons his own way—the hard way.


In 1835 John Porter Simpson, Al and Pete's paternal great-grandfather, was born to Robert and Nancy Simpson of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. The family ventured west, and in Bear Creek, Colorado, on Christmas Day of 1865, John married Margaret "Maggie" Susan Sullivan, eleven years his junior. On January 26, 1868, in a house near Fort Reynolds, east of Pueblo, Maggie gave birth to a son they named William. A free spirit from an early age, Billy was fifteen years old when he ventured into the Wyoming Territory to find work as a cowhand and later to pursue his interest in becoming a lawyer.

In 1889 his parents, after numerous relocations and family tragedies, also moved north and took up residence on a ranch in the Wind River drainage north of Lander. In 1892 they relocated to Lander, near their son Billy. In September of the following year they moved for the last time, to Jackson Hole. That fall, in one of the nation's most beautiful settings, they built the first house with a shingled roof, and Maggie became the settlement's first postmaster. She and John were formative in laying out the original Jackson town site.

Billy's future wife Margaret "Maggie" Burnett was born January 24, 1874, not in Wyoming but in Utah. Her mother, Eliza Ann McCarthy Burnett, had been taken there for the birth because of dangerous conflicts with the Bannock Indians near their Fort Washakie home in the Wyoming Territory. Maggie, whose father was well-known frontiersman Finn Burnett, departed for Texas at age fifteen to attend Green's College in Dallas and St. Ursula's Catholic convent in San Antonio. She returned to Wyoming and became a volunteer teacher of English and Latin to Indian students at St. Stephen's Catholic mission. There she met Billy Simpson, who, despite little formal education, was seeking Latin instruction in his quest to take the state bar exam and become a lawyer. He successfully completed an oral examination on the law, and on July 11, 1892, he was admitted to the Wyoming Bar as a practicing attorney. He was twenty-four years old. In October of the following year Billy Simpson married nineteen-year-old Maggie Burnett.


Commonly known as "Broken Ass Bill" since he had been afflicted with polio at age eleven and walked with a limp, Billy loved to brag about having been expelled from the fourth grade back in Colorado for witnessing a public hanging—something he laughingly considered "a twofer."

He became known as an accomplished lawyer with a penchant for drinking and gambling and, during the following decades, lived with Maggie in Lander, Jackson, Meeteetse, Thermopolis, and Cody, Wyoming. His grandson Al says they moved often. Billy—also known by the pet name "Popoo" —was prone to getting drunk, gambling, and losing their home. "Three times, he came home to say, 'Pack up, Maggie. We don't own this place anymore.' That really irritated my grandmother."

The couple had three children: Virginia, Milward, and Glen (also spelled Glenn, and further known as Burnett). Milward was born in a log cabin in Jackson on November 12, 1897, and was destined to play a significant role in public life. He was only seven years old the day his father shot a Meeteetse banker.


Excerpted from Shooting from the Lip by Donald Loren Hardy. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Donald Loren Hardy served for 18 years as Senator Alan K. Simpson’s Press Secretary and Chief of Staff, then served as Director of Government Affairs at the Smithsonian Institution. Retired, he now engages in humanitarian efforts overseas and resides with his wife Rebecca in Montana.

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Shooting from the Lip 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Odysseus3 More than 1 year ago
Don Hardy's book, "Shooting from the Lip," is aptly titled. It tells the life story of former Senator Alan K. Simpson, perhaps the most unguarded man in recent decades to rise to political prominence. Written with the aid of Simpson's diaries, the book evokes how he thought, the issues and experiences that shaped his career, the tempo of his daily life, and his unique way of expressing himself. It's all here, from the momentous down to the mundane - including the "pecan incident" long known to Simpson staff, now preserved for posterity on page 52. Simpson never lost his sense of wonder over the miracle of modern democracy. Even as he navigates the corridors of power along with presidents, fellow legislators, and foreign heads of state, his diary records his excitement over the privilege. For Americans who believe that all politicians are cynical and numb to the unique responsibility of their offices, this book convincingly demonstrates the contrary. It is a happy accident of history that Simpson's right-hand man in Washington, book author Don Hardy, is also an excellent writer. He has not only a press background but also a natural talent. He's raised his game still further with this professional effort. Early in the book Hardy details Simpson's "War on Gibberish" - the Senator's loathing of unnecessarily opaque prose. Appropriately to his subject, Hardy's own writing is clear, direct and succinct. One of the afflictions of modern political culture is the view that those of the "opposite faith" (to use a Simpson phrase) must implicitly be malevolent and/or dishonest. Simpson's way of working shows the opposite: that decent and intelligent people can have opposing views about economic policy, foreign policy, and much else. This intellectual humility enabled Simpson to have genuine, strong friendships with individuals ranging from Senator Ted Kennedy to President George Bush. Readers of the book will learn the formative influences on Simpson's political behavior. Only too aware that he had made foolish mistakes early in life, Simpson was always ready to defend those on the firing line. If the press was running roughshod over someone, Simpson usually threw his body in front of him - whether Joe Biden, Robert Bork, Ted Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, or George Bush. The same instincts rendered Simpson intolerant of opportunistic political attacks. Though himself subject to criticism as a pro-choice Republican, Simpson was willing to rip various pro-choice advocacy groups - and many others -- when he found their behavior unseemly and unfair. The book shows how Simpson's instincts in these areas evolved early in his life, putting him at odds with much of contemporary press culture. In school, he once refused to release vote totals to the school paper, so as not to embarrass the losing candidate. This instinct would create collisions between Simpson and the press throughout his political career. Best of all, the book time and again delivers Simpson's colorful, pungent language -- sometimes controversial, often hilarious. Politicians just don't speak like Simpson anymore (indeed, they hardly ever did), and that is a shame. Simpson's instinct for language was reflected in - and fueled by -- his love for certain classic poems, detailed within the book. In sum, this is the definitive account of a unique American statesman.
Chuck_Shenk More than 1 year ago
I don't care what your political passions are, if you have an open mind you are going to love this book. It is the story of an exceptional politician (from a time when they weren't quite so rare), sincere family man, and best friend to presidents, senators and non-politicians. The book relies heavily on Senator Simpson's epic-length, tell-all diary that contains stories rich in humor, anger, trials, tribulations, and friendships, and is set largely during his leadership years in the US Senate. It is a warts and all telling of the issues facing the nation, and Simpson personally, and is never boring. The book is not a detailed portrayal of legislation, but is rather a passionate look at how this individual, who always speaks his mind, fights for what he believes in while stepping on more media and political toes than most politicians would ever dare to. In general he is admired by those he's fought the biggest battles with, but there are plenty of regrets along the way. Today's politicians in Congress could learn a lot from Simpson about the value of friendships in getting things done. The book is well-written, entertaining, and you'll pick up some great jokes.
margojMJ More than 1 year ago
I finished reading this book at 10:30 pm. on a Saturday night. I have to say I'm very disappointed---Disappointed that the book is over I mean! Disappointed that we don't have more Alan K Simpsons in Washington today-This book should be required reading for anyone even considering running for office and for all elected officials. For the rest of us -- something to give us hope that one can reach across party lines without selling his/her soul, that compromise and respectful dialog (and sometimes not so respectful-but dialogue nonetheless!)really can occur in Washington. Senator Simpson's story makes us realize that true friends appreciate your integrity even if they disagree with your position. The book is filled with humor, compassion, sadness, victory, loss, and above all- integrity, and steadfast determination -- The book was fabulous- I laughed (belly laughed even)way more than once and cried even more. It was thrilling for me to feel like a fly on the wall of such intimate and important events in our country's history. After finishing the book I went to bed holding on to my new favorite quote from Senator Simpson: "If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don't have integrity, nothing else matters"- thank you Mr. Hardy for your literary integrity and thank you Senator Simpson for yours!!